In August 2014, the United States launched airstrikes against Sunni Muslim militants of the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS) to help besieged Kurdish military forces and Yazidi civilians in northern Iraq. Within weeks, ISIS militants beheaded American civilians and, the next month, the United States expanded its operations to hit ISIS militants in Syria. An Administration guided by the principle of “not doing stupid stuff” now finds itself in a new military campaign of unknown duration where the definition of victory is also murky. Congress and the American public more broadly are wondering what exactly we are wading into.
The starting point to the answer is obvious: From Tripoli on the Mediterranean shores of Lebanon to Diyala northeast of Baghdad stretches a Sunni Muslim community that is bitterly aggrieved, insecure, and fearful. They perceive that Iran and its Shia allies like Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Syria’s Assad regime, which is dominated by Alawis, are killing Sunnis indiscriminately and marginalizing them politically and economically. This would lead any reasonable American to ask: If the militants’ main beef is not with America, why then would they slit the throats of innocent Americans like James Foley and Steven Sotloff, as well as those of other innocent foreigners who were sympathetic to the sufferings and fears of that community? Americans might also ask what kind of belief system and grievances could lead to such appalling acts and their use as political tools to recruit still more fighters.
Answering these questions correctly and accurately matters. How the U.S. government conducts the campaign against the jihadis, and with whom and for whose benefit it conducts it, will directly affect the calculations of the militants we are fighting and whether we can isolate them from the vast majority of the roughly 24 million Sunni Muslims who live in the Levant and Iraq. President Obama has rightly said that the underlying problem is political; the jihadis feed off resentment. But there are other questions, such as, “Do we understand the resentments correctly?” and “Do we shape our responses appropriately?”
Seeking answers to these questions could lead many to turn to the experienced Middle East hand Patrick Cockburn, who has reported for years for British media from Iraq, and whose 2008 book on Muqtada al-Sadr and Iraq was full of new insights into the history of the modern Shia political parties in that country. In The Jihadis Return, a much briefer book, Cockburn breaks little new ground in describing the nature of the Islamic State now ensconced in Syria and Iraq. Moreover, his blaming of Saudi and even Pakistani actions in helping to facilitate the Islamic State’s rise absolves Iran and its allies of much responsibility. His is a misleading perspective that—to the extent that it influences our policies—could add gasoline to the conflagration, as it would aggravate the resentments among Sunni Arabs that erupted onto the scene in 2014 and gave rise to the Islamic State in the first place.
In Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, the Iranian-backed Shia dominate. Hezbollah wields a virtual veto in the Lebanese political system; in Syria, Bashar al-Assad’s family rules ruthlessly, with its staunchest support from the Alawi community. Only about 12 percent of Syrians are Alawis, but roughly 80 percent of officers in the security services come from that community. Meanwhile, in Iraq, since the Americans deposed Saddam Hussein, Shia Islamists have controlled the key functions of the Baghdad government. Not surprisingly, many Sunni Arabs in these countries have called for help from neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, widening local Shia-Sunni competitions into region-wide tensions.
A fundamental problem with Cockburn’s new book is that it only skims through the grievances of the Iraqi Sunni Arab community, especially their political marginalization. On the one hand, he slams the government of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for corruption, noting, “Under Maliki’s Shia-dominated government, patronage based on party, family or community determines who gets a job, contributing further to the political and economic marginalization of Iraq’s Sunni population….” But later he undercuts that critique, writing that there “was considerable truth” behind Maliki’s exaggerated March 2014 accusations that Saudi Arabia and Qatar were instigating Sunni Arab violence in Iraq.
Indeed, Cockburn misplaces the source of the problem, focusing more on the Saudis than on what Iran’s allies in Iraq did to the country’s Sunnis. Here Cockburn seems to confuse cause and effect. He does note in passing that Shia militias have killed some Sunni Arabs. He also refers to a leaked 2007 U.S. Embassy report indicating that Sunni Arabs had left many Baghdad districts and in others lived in enclaves surrounded by essentially hostile Shia communities.
The most important point, however, is that since the eruption of large-scale sectarian fighting in Iraq in 2005, the country’s Sunni Arabs have perceived that they are under attack by Shia irregulars abetted by Iran or sometimes by the Shia-majority Iraqi government forces. That sense of threat sustained the Sunni jihadi militant cause before it surged in 2013. Without understanding that the security threat as seen by most Iraqi Sunni Arabs is paramount, it is impossible to understand why they collaborate with extremists like the Islamic State to regain a sense of security and order. Cockburn’s light touch on the problem of Shia militias in particular could give readers the sense that those militias are just a problem, but not the biggest problem. This also means that when American arms leak to those Shia militias, as U.S. media have reported, it seriously aggravates the problem.
Cockburn’s book also lumps all the Iraqi Sunni Arabs together. There are certainly similar concerns among that large community, but the urbanized Sunni Arabs in Mosul differ from those in western Iraq’s large Anbar province, where tribes predominate. Mosul is home to thousands of Saddam Hussein-era Baathists and army officers, and breaking them away from the Islamic State would require political agility and deal-making. By contrast, Anbar is a story of promises broken. The Jihadis Return oddly declines to discuss the Iraqi government’s failure from 2009 through 2011 to honor commitments made a couple of years earlier to the Sons of Iraq, a mostly Anbar-based tribal alliance that fought Al Qaeda on behalf of the Iraqi government from 2007 to 2009 in return for promises of jobs and eventual integration of some fighters into the Iraqi army. Cockburn avoids mention of how Maliki imprisoned some of the Sons of Iraq leaders, along with thousands of other Sunnis, without trial. He asserts that prior to the 2011 Arab Spring, the Iraqi Sunni Arabs had become “largely resigned to the Shia-Kurdish domination of Iraq.”
What changed the balance, Cockburn writes, was the success of Sunni rebels fighting against the Syrian government. He claims that the United States and other Western states were blind to the risk that by aiding the Syrian armed opposition, they were enabling a leakage of weapons to Iraqi Sunnis and ultimately putting Iraqi stability in jeopardy. But for the jihadis to exploit bases in Syria, they also had to enjoy growing support in Iraq, and this was developing steadily regardless of events in Syria. Resentments that festered over the Maliki government’s broken promises led tribal elements in 2013 to launch protests in western Iraq and in the north-central city of Hawija against Sunni detentions and political exclusion. The Jihadis Return mentions these demonstrations and the government’s killing of dozens of demonstrators only in passing. This growing repression in 2013—not support from Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, and not arms smuggled in from Syria—was the key factor behind the jihadis’ surge. The Iraqi government’s violence, perceived as the latest and worst instance of Shia pounding on Sunnis, facilitated the Islamic State’s recruitment drive in Anbar, its alliances with other Iraqi Sunni Arabs in Mosul, and ultimately the undermining of those Sunni Arabs who remained in the Iraqi government and who urged against violence.
In just a few months, the pace of ISIS gains in Iraq accelerated. Here The Jihadis Return admirably reviews the successes of the Islamic State on the ground starting in mid-2013, including breakouts of Sunni Arab prisoners who were free to join the Islamic State, followed by the capture of Fallujah in January 2014—events little noticed outside Iraq. Cockburn, calling Fallujah a gateway to the capital, Baghdad, writes that the Islamic State’s capture of the city was a “body blow” to the Maliki government that revealed its real weakness.
Turning to Syria, Cockburn argues that the uprising there was fueled mainly by the failure of Assad’s government to respond to the needs of the growing rural population. As with his description of Iraqi Sunni Arab resentments, there is truth in this, but there was much more going on. Notably, the first major demonstration in Syria after the start of the Arab Spring was in Damascus in February 2011, a large (by Syrian standards) and spontaneous protest against an incident of police brutality, not food prices or unemployment. (Also notable in this incident was that the Syrian interior minister at the time promised that the policeman would be punished, thus convincing the protesters to disperse peacefully.) After another incident of police brutality in Daraa the next month, however, the protests extended throughout the country in both small towns as well as urban centers, such as in Damascus and Hama, where rural interests were not involved.
As with the Sunni Arabs in Iraq, there was widespread resentment among Sunnis in Syria against injustices and their political exclusion at the hands of a security state dominated by another sect, this time the Alawis. Cockburn says nothing about how the Assad family ran Syria as its own fiefdom, or how one of Bashar’s billionaire cousins, who enjoyed monopoly control of the country’s cell-phone service, used his position to create Alawi militias to fight against the opposition. The very visible support to the Assad government from Iran, Hezbollah, and Iraqi Shia militias further aggravates the sectarian nature of the Syrian conflict, a point that Cockburn must understand but avoids discussing.
Betraying his underlying sympathy toward the Shia, Cockburn also blames Western, Turkish, and Saudi support of the Sunni opposition for prolonging the Syrian civil war. He ignores the vastly greater help from Iran, Russia, and Iraq that has kept the minority Assad regime afloat while it flouts any effort to negotiate a settlement. Using a report from Saddam al-Jamal, an opposition officer who later defected to the Islamic State, Cockburn describes the manner in which foreign officials, including a Saudi prince, funneled aid to the armed opposition. Cockburn also asserts that the Saudis and Qataris consciously sought to shift the ideology that underpinned the Syrian uprising, from democracy to a Salafi Sunni bid for power. In fact, the Saudis avoided hard-line Islamist groups and instead promoted secular groups like Jamal Maarouf and his Syrian Revolutionaries Front (not very successfully, as events would demonstrate in late 2014, when the Nusra Front—the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda—overran Maarouf’s men in northwestern Syria). Moreover, those countries that did help harder-line Salafi groups did so less because they wanted a Salafi Syrian state than because those groups’ fighters were tougher and less prone to corruption. (Cockburn himself points to corruption in Free Syrian Army units.)
Cockburn concludes that a solution to the Syrian conflict will be hard to develop. He opines that localized cease-fires might save at least some lives as they did in Lebanon, but that ultimately a solution agreed to with Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States as the patrons to the opposing sides will be needed. Unfortunately, none of those countries has much leverage on the Islamic State or the Nusra Front.
As we look ahead, the durability of the jihadis will depend on how well their own ideology and behavior meld with the grievances of the Sunni Arab communities from which they draw most of their support. The Jihadis Return offers little about governance or the belief systems of the Islamic State or the Nusra Front. Cockburn doesn’t seek to describe their vision of an Islamic government or explore why they are anti-Western. He loosely attributes the IS doctrine to Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia but avoids any discussion of the relationship. This raises the questions of what exactly the Islamic State’s doctrine is, what it allows for, and how the Islamic State will follow the doctrine going forward.
This matters, hugely. Cockburn repeatedly lays much of the blame for the rise of the jihadi phenomenon on Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent on Pakistan due to its aid to the Taliban. However, in Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabi establishment accepts a tense peace in areas such as the Eastern Province, where the Shia have second-class citizenship. Would the Islamic State accept something similar for Iraqi Shia in, say, Diyala or Salah ad-Din provinces, or for the Alawis in Latakia in Syria? If so, would a cease-fire ever be possible? The murder of hundreds of prisoners, the destruction of ancient mosques, and the barbaric treatment of the Yazidi minority in particular suggest that the Islamic State would reject any negotiation or truce. Although Cockburn doesn’t say it, the Islamic State is far more extreme than the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis don’t control it; at most, some Saudi clerics might be able to help undermine the Islamic State’s religious justifications, but the region is confronting an organization far more radical than anything we have seen before.
Even between the Nusra Front and Islamic State there are disagreements. One obvious difference is over the establishment of a state. Al Qaeda and its Nusra Front held off announcing a state, while ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi with much flourish announced the new caliphate in June 2014 from the pulpit of the eight-centuries-old Great Mosque in Mosul. In 2013 and early 2014, its fighters established facilities and bases in and near towns and strategic points in opposition-controlled areas; killed or banished secular activists running Raqqa, the future caliphate’s capital, as well as the smaller towns; and over a period of months tightened control of the population centers behind the Syrian armed opposition’s lines.
The Islamic State now oversees school systems, universities, hospitals, tax administrations, an energy production and distribution network, and a military apparatus. It holds a virtual monopoly of force in the areas it controls, using allied tribes and administrators where possible. By summer of 2014, when it launched its blitzkrieg in Iraq and against Nusra Front and Syrian government forces in eastern and central Syria, it had a support infrastructure far beyond that which any other Syrian opposition force could muster, and it has been able to sustain hard combat operations against the Iraqi government for more than a year, even after Baghdad began enjoying direct American and Iranian combat support. The Islamic State’s drive to build a state, while far from perfect, has had a huge impact on the battlefield.
Nowhere in his book, however, does Cockburn approach the state-building question. Instead, he attributes the Islamic State’s military successes in Iraq less to its capabilities than to Iraqi army failings, and in particular corruption. Cockburn presents a very good description of the corruption problem and its impact on Iraqi soldiers’ morale. The Jihadis Return has a particularly compelling explanation of how corrupt officers misused government resources and left Baghdad with a hollowed-out force unable to stand up in summer 2014 against well-resourced Islamic State fighters allied to other Sunni elements. Cockburn comments that it is “difficult to think of any examples in history when security forces a million strong, including 15 divisions, have crumbled so quickly” after attacks from enemy forces that have been estimated at 6,000. He rightly concludes that the key was the support from the local Sunni Arab populations.
In 2015, the question becomes whether the jihadis, and the IS caliphate in particular, will be able to maintain a level of popular support and sustain their battle across Syria and Iraq. Ignoring the ideology and nature of IS as a state hinders Cockburn’s analysis. The Islamic State is seeking Sunnis to come strengthen the caliphate, and the possibility of reestablishing the polity their Islamic history courses define as ideal appeals to young Arabs from Morocco to Yemen. Notably, the Islamic State’s Internet magazine, Dabiq, is named for a small village in northern Syria where an alleged prophecy from Mohammed states that the final victory of genuine Muslims against apostates is destined to occur.
In the more immediate term, the prospect of living in a state with a fair system also appeals to many young people across the Arab world. Notably, the country from which more citizens have gone to join the Islamic State than any other is not Saudi Arabia but Tunisia, home to a real middle class and shaped by Mediterranean influences. In October 2014, New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick highlighted how many young Tunisians, frustrated by corruption and economic stagnation at home, perceive the caliphate as a place where honest Sunnis can set up decent lives away from the corruption that has pervaded their country. Arab governments have a huge challenge to instill hope in their existing states among bulging youth populations, large proportions of whom are prone to hear the stern but egalitarian appeal of the jihadis.
The Jihadis Return makes no attempt to look at this new, dangerous appeal of the Islamic State. The book’s descriptions of sectarianism and corruption in Iraq are useful, but the deeper issue is whether the aggrieved Sunni Arab community, and especially those in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, wants to live in a specifically religious state that will be at war indefinitely with other communities. If it does, then the Americans are fighting not just a state but an idea that we lack the patience to use military means to extinguish.
On the other hand, if the ideology of the jihadis itself permits a political deal with other religious communities, or if the majority of the Sunnis don’t like the ideology and can be segmented away from the Islamic State and the Nusra Front, then the Americans and their coalition partners have to adjust their military and political tactics to help that occur. This is the play the United States must pursue. This means, however, that we can’t ally with the very Iranian-backed forces generating Sunni Arab resentment, even if the Iranians are also fighting the jihadis. The Iranians, after all, fight to secure Shia dominance, not power-sharing. It means the Americans can’t lump all those backing the Islamic State and the Nusra Front together, but rather that we will have to identify who among Sunni Arabs, even religious conservatives, will accept a degree of coexistence and tolerance in the Levant and Iraq. It means the Americans also must understand how to convince some Sunni Arabs, as happened successfully in Iraq from 2007 through 2009, that working with us against Sunni jihadis is not a surrender to the Shia but rather can lead the Sunni Arabs to real political empowerment.